One of the loudest buzzwords in the technology world -- the Internet of Things (IoT) -- is not as new or revolutionary as recent news on the topic would have you believe.
Although it is just hitting the consumer and enterprise markets, people with insight into modern manufacturing know that the industrial world has become quite effective at connecting machines to automate processes over the last 30 years. The process in this context is called machine-to-machine (M2M) communications or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and it's a mature and well-understood area.
But the IIoT didn't get to be as refined as it is today without overcoming major foundational challenges. Connectivity and communications proved the most significant hurdles for the IIoT, and I expect the same for the consumer and enterprise worlds if a truly diverse and smart machine ecosystem is in fact the ultimate goal. Challenges fall into two major buckets: connectivity and language.
Connecting disparate machines and manufacturers
A common data delivery infrastructure is needed for one machine to "talk" with another about what it knows and what actions it expects the other to subsequently take. This shared infrastructure was an early obstacle for the IIoT until Ethernet became widely accepted as the predominant connectivity standard. Although Ethernet might seem like an obvious choice today, serious cooperation was required for it to gain widespread adoption by manufacturers (buyers) and -- perhaps most importantly -- by machinery vendors.
The consumer world also needs to agree on a standard form of connectivity. Although the answer is unclear today, it must be prevalent, and there must be consensus about its merits. Consumer IoT connectivity will probably be wireless and might use current commercial infrastructures such as long-term evolution (LTE), WiFi, or the power grid. Emerging connectivity consortiums such as the Open Interconnect Consortium and the AllSeen Alliance will help establish such standards.
Speaking the same language
Most technology vendors want to influence and improve their industry -- as long as doing so involves their products. For example, companies designing washing machines and HVAC systems to participate in the IoT are primarily invested in figuring out how to exchange information between their products.
Likewise, in the early days of the IIoT, companies typically had to buy products from a single vendor to create an integrated system. This wasn't much of a downfall for big one-stop-shop vendors, such as GE and Mitsubishi. But anyone who prefers a Mac laptop and an Android smartphone knows that different vendors offer strengths.
The same holds true when it comes to creating the optimal system for building cars, manufacturing paper, or drilling for oil. Options are important, and sometimes the most effective manufacturing infrastructure consists of products from various vendors. The difficulty lies not only in connecting those various brands, but also in ensuring that they can exchange information by supporting open protocols.
[Here Comes The Internet Of Things: Items from pills to power plants will soon generate billions of data points. Find out how this movement will change your industry.]
In fact, proprietary protocol standards were probably the biggest obstacle in the early days of the IIoT. It has taken much work and cooperation for standard protocols to be recognized and adopted across industries and geographic regions. For example, the Modbus protocol is now extremely prevalent across the power and automation industries. This means that, if a vendor wants to sell machines in the power industry, it should support Modbus to ensure interoperability with other vendors' products.
Besides relying on open protocols, the industrial world has also used software that overlays a physical architecture and serves as a universal translator. But, again, it must be open. Just like in the industrial world, proprietary communications protocols will hinder the progress of the IoT in the consumer and enterprise worlds.
Standardization of connectivity and communications protocols has been key in getting the IIoT to where it is today. The consumer world can learn from these industrial accomplishments. We are even beginning to see enterprise-focused organizations straddle the IIoT and IoT. For example, although mostly known for enterprise big data aggregation, the operational intelligence platform provider Splunk is also focusing on the IIoT and allowing industrial machine data to flow freely into its enterprise platforms.
For IT teams looking to further their companies' IoT programs, consider options that overlap the IIoT and IoT. Whether consumer or industrial, the foundational concept of getting various machines to talk and work together is the same. In order for the consumer and enterprise markets to use the IoT to the degree that the industrial world does today, they must get to work agreeing on standard forms of connectivity and communications protocols for sharing information.
Regardless of exactly how the IoT evolves, its potential impact is huge. I, for one, am very excited to see a world of Internet-connected machines brought to fruition.
The Internet of Things demands reliable connectivity, but standards remain up in the air. Here's how to kick your IoT strategy into high gear. Get the new IoT Goes Mobile issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today (free registration required).